Are BTs Treated as Second Class Citizens?

A few weeks ago an article about BTs came to our attention. For a number of reasons we decided not to run it, but some of our favorite BT advocates such as Rabbi Adlerstein, Rabbi Maryles and Rabbi Horowitz decided to run with the article.

Instead of us discussing what we didn’t like about the article, despite the good intentions of the author, we decided to ask our audience about the article’s main premise:

In your experience, are BTs generally treated as second class citizens in the communities you’ve lived in?

First Published on July 22, 2008

A Baal Teshuva’s Father’s Perspectives

By “David Shub”

As the father of two BTs, the first words of advice to parents of other BTs is to say that you cannot make it a power struggle. Not only is it not a power struggle, but it is not a “fight” of who is right and who is wrong.

If someone had told me these words twenty years ago, when my older child was becoming “frum,” I would probably have become angry. Years of adaptation, adoption, and understanding have softened my initial view points.

Twenty years ago, my wife and I did not understand what was happening to our 14 year old child. The child was raised in a rather non-religious household. (I was raised in a secular Jewish household where religion was often mocked as the “opium of the masses,” but Yiddishkeit was an understood value.) We did join a Reform synagogue so that we would be able to give our kids whatever it was that we were not exposed to. When our daughter studied for her bat mitzvah, she displayed such a passion for Judaism that we thought we had a rabbi in the making. After her bat mitzvah she decided she wanted more, so we allowed her to enroll in a local Sunday Jewish High School that was run by an Orthodox principal and Orthodox teachers. The student body was comprised mostly of children from Conservative and Reform households.
Read more A Baal Teshuva’s Father’s Perspectives

So NOT Deprived

My family of origin thinks that I am deprived. I am limited to eating only kosher food, and not any kosher food. If it has a “K” on the box, that isn’t good enough. When I go into the Food Court of the local mall, I can’t eat anything I want. If I should have a craving for an ice cream cone after a fleishig meal, I must wait. I live in a free country, and yet, I have willingly enslaved myself to a lifestyle of scarcity. (They think).

As a recent attendee to KosherFest, where all my senses were flooded with gourmet food of every nationality imaginable, and thousands of fellow Jews elbowed their way to get to the latest sample of delectable and decadent, I wanted so much for my family to witness –it’s never been so easy to be a kosher Jew. Anyone in the busy East Coast of the USA who would complain about kashrus limiting their choices hasn’t really taken a good look at the closest supermarket, glatt market, or any major department store and big-box grocer that provides an array of kosher choices beyond anything our grandparents could have imagined.

I am fortunate to be living in a suburban area with easy access to kosher food. (One of my children asked, “Mommy, how do people who don’t keep kosher ever make a choice about what to eat? There are too many choices out there!”)Not all Jews have it this good –Jews scattered all over this globe, and traveling on business, are sometimes living on a lot of tuna fish and maybe even the dreaded airline meal. But in my universe, it is the rare moment when I actually experience anything close to a feeling of deprivation when it comes to what I put into my mouth.

And so it is that when my family assembles by me one day a year, on the American holiday of Thanksgiving, that I make enough food to feed twice the number of guests, and the side dishes are plentiful. No one who eats in my home will ever see kashrus through the eyes of deprivation. So they can’t have ice cream on their pumpkin pie – that’s what parve ice cream is for. After all these years, I’ve stopped defending my choices to my family, and although they don’t join me in observance, they have stopped trying to convince me otherwise. What lightens my heart is that our children, who were raised in a Torah-observant home, view their secular relatives as being deprived, and not the other way around. “They don’t get to ever have Shabbos rest from shopping and phones?” “They don’t even know what Sukkot is, or Simchas Torah?” And when it comes to food, our children can’t imagine a life without cholent, potato kugel, deli roll, and chocolate bubka, Who is deprived?

The holocaust survivors I interview for the memoirs I write for them all originate from different parts of Europe, and yet each one of them has told me the same story – of a Shabbos of their youth with a simple and savored menu, looked forward to every week, and greatly missed once the Nazis ripped it all away. Now, amidst all the many choices in the local market, each one of them reminisces about the foods of their childhood; nothing currently sold or available holds a candle to their mother’s compote, or chicken soup, or cholent. Kashrus was once a true struggle, a life-altering commitment that required hours a day of preparation, and choices were simple then. Yet, never once has a survivor complained to me about feeling deprived as a child because their family kept kosher. Never once.

The language of kashrus is one of joy, of pride, of commitment, of family tradition, and always, of delicious. Too bad it’s not calorie free.

First appeared in Mishpacha magazine, January 2013.

How Can We Get Beyond the Failure Narrative?

As Jews we want to improve ourselves, our communities and the world. That’s our calling. Perhaps that’s why some very fine people, including many articles and comments on Beyond BT, scrutinize our people and institutions in search of improvement.

It’s a noble cause, but the downside is that we get caught in a failure narrative. Kiruv is failing. Our communities are failing. Our spiritual connection is failing. Our educational institutions are failing. Our resource allocation is failing. We do acknowledge the successes, but it seems the overriding narrative is one of failing people and failing institutions.

Can we improve without the failure narrative?

Is finding failure the Torah viewpoint?

Can giving the benefit of the doubt and judging favorable apply to communities and institutions?

Should we emphasize the successes or is that just a rose-colored-glasses view?

Song, Hope and Salvation in Honor of the L’Chaim of Yaakov and Amanda

An elaboration of remarks made this week at the l’chaim for my son Yaakov and his kallah, Amanda:

It’s especially fitting to celebrate an engagement this week, when we will observe Shabbos Shira. It’s difficult for us to imagine what it was like for the Jews of Egypt when, after watching the systematic and miraculous obliteration of the empire that had oppressed them for generations, after witnessing the death of four-fifths of their brethren who refused to trust in the hand of heaven, after setting forth into the forbidding desert with great wealth and fanfare, after finding themselves trapped between Pharaoh’s advancing chariots and the unyielding sea – after all that, to launch themselves forward between towering walls of water may have been the only option available to them but was by no means a simple act of self-preservation.

Panic, desperation, terror, relief, and disbelief – all these emotions caromed back and forth through their collective consciousness as they raced forward into uncertainty. And, as they came out soundly on the other side, the cacophony of thoughts and feelings coalesced into a divinely inspired harmony we call the Shir Shel Yam – the Song of the Sea.

For all that, the commentaries all question the syntax of the opening phrase, Oz yoshir Moshe u’vnei Yisroel – contextually translated as, “Then, Moshe and the Children of Israel sang,” but curiously rendered in the future tense rather than the past. Explains the Sfas Emes: although the people were inspired to sing as they passed through the sea, their preoccupation with the practical business of fleeing for their lives demanded that their lyrical expression of elation would have to wait until their salvation was completed.

And so we learn that Hashem is closest to us not during those times when we have already connected with Him, but rather when we are seeking Him with the sense that revelation is nearly within reach. Naturally, we express our deepest gratitude after we have been saved. But our most intimate connection with the Almighty comes during those moments when salvation is imminent but not yet complete. Only then can we experience the spiritual intensity of absolute dependence upon divine intervention even as we see our redemption unfolding before our eyes.

Indeed, the Zohar tells us that Moshe Rabbeinu felt humbled when he beheld prophetically the generation before the coming of Moshiach. For Moshe, who lived in an era of open miracles and divine revelation, it seemed a simple matter to trust in Hashem and His providence. But to live in a generation of such spiritual darkness that even the faintest glimmer of divine light seemed to have vanished, and to retain nevertheless even the smallest shred of faithfulness to Hashem and His Torah – that was something the Moshe himself could not fathom; that was the source of his profound humility.

We find ourselves in such a generation, so much so that it’s easy for us to reckon ourselves like King Louis XV of France who said, “Things may last my time, but after me – le deluge.”

It’s terrifying to contemplate the world in which our grandchildren will grow up and the storms our children will have to navigate. But on the occasion of this l’chaim, I’m filled with hope.

Tzafat – An Ecletic City of Seekers

By Laurie Rappeport

English-speaking immigrants have been settling in Tzfat since the founding of the State but in the ’70s the numbers began to grow as many Anglo olim were searching for spirituality combined with a desire to live in a small supportive community. The English-speaking community of Tzfat is comprised of people of all ages and religious (and non-religious) sentiments. It is surprisingly cohesive and creates a welcoming presence for newcomers who continue to arrive every year.

Many of Tzfat’s new residents are “seekers” — people who want stronger, or different, spiritual components in their lives. Among these are a larger-than-statistically-typical number of gerim, many of whom have unique stories of their journey to Judaism. In addition, probably more than 50% of the newcomers are BTs. Of these many come to Tzfat because they’re moving closer to religious observance or to a particular community. Other BTs as well as FFBs find that Tzfat is an easy place to live if you want to move from one type of religious observance to another.

There is a wide range of religious communities in Tzfat that attract new residents. These include Chabad, Breslev, Sanz, Litvack, National Religious and even New-Agers. Breslev is a growing presence in Tzfat and it attracts many people who are new to Judaism as well as individuals who want a more Hassidic presence in their lives. Chabad is a strong group as well in the city and operates many local educational institutions which welcome everyone. Tzfat is known as the “Berkeley of the Middle East” and many of the people who have immigrated from the Bay area, together with others, have created their own kind of observant Jewish Renewal in Tzfat.

One of the biggest and newest religious groups in the city is the Carlebach crowd. There are two Carlebach shuls, Beirav and the House of Love and Prayer. Both encompass mixed populations of Haredim and National Religious. A large percentage of the local Jewish Renewal adherents attend services at the Carlebach shuls as well.

One of the features of Tzfat that draws so many newcomers is the reputation that the city has as a place where people from different communities get along well. This is particularly evidenced within the English-speaking community where mutual self-help groups and institutions cater to all.

The entire Anglo community, from Hassidic housewives to secular kibbutzniks who live on neighboring kibbutzim, use the Safed English Library. There is a wide selection of books and magazines at the library which include traditional Jewish book alongside science fiction, novels, romance, classics and much more. The library operates solely on donations and volunteerism and every day volunteers come in to check in new books, pack up doubles to send to other libraries and update the shelves. Many new immigrants choose to come to Tzfat in part because of the library which is also a center of information for the community.

Another information hub is the Tzfatline newsletter which is compiled and sent out by email several times a week. A subscriptions to Tzfatline (at tzfatline@aol.com) is free and the newsletter is used by people to post information about real estate, services, jobs, classes, gmach offers, items for sale, ride shares, positions wanted, lessons provided, etc. The newsletter is another example of a community-wide service which is used by everyone. A second, “chattier” form of communication is the Tzfat Chevre Facebook page on which residents can offer goods and services, ask questions and request advice. The format allows members to chat back and forth. There are several hundred members of the Facebook group.

Living in Tzfat isn’t suitable for everyone. Employment is difficult to find and the city doesn’t host the wealth of cultural activities that can be found in the Center of the country. However, for Anglos who are interested in living in a small, welcoming and accepting community, Tzfat is definitely a city to explore.

For Children of BTs – Would You Like to Participate in a Study?

You are invited to participate in a research study being conducted by Tova Lane, PsyM, a doctoral student at the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. The research study is being conducted for a dissertation study. All information recorded in this survey is anonymous. This means there will be no recording of any information which can identify you.

Title of Study: Impact of Parents’ Religious Background on Parenting Style and Children’s Religiosity in the Orthodox Jewish Community

The purpose of this study is to learn about the parenting styles of parents in the Orthodox Jewish community and how it impacts their children’s religious observance. In order to participate in this study you must have been raised in the United States as an Orthodox Jew. You must currently be between the ages of 18-24.

If you are interested in participating please click on the following link to the study is http://tinyurl.com/growingupfrum.

Affirming the BT Growth Mission

I was at a Torah Umesorah convention recently and I had the pleasure of spending time with a young Rabbi who is dedicating his life to building a Torah community and helping Jews with little or no Jewish education embrace, Torah, mitzvos and Hashem, at a pace that makes sense for them. The fact that this month’s issue of Klal Perspectives even hints that we need to shine the bright light of success evaluation on his mesiras nefesh for the Klal, in the name of community resource allocation, is quite puzzling to me and to many others.

What was really striking was this Rabbi’s growth orientation. It was evident in everything he said. I asked him straight out where he had developed such a wonderful Torah attitude. He told me that he was an FFB, and had fine tuned this orientation in the years he learned at the Jerusalem Kollel of Rabbi Yitzchak Berkowitz. In addition to Rabbi Berkowitz, he mentioned the influence of a number of BTs at the Kollel. He said that the BT contribution to a communal Torah growth perspective is both immeasurable and undervalued.

For the readers, writers and commentators here on Beyond BT this growth culture is no secret. It permeates almost every post, comment and email we receive. We are a group of people who after 5, 10, 20, 30 or even 40 years of Yiddishkeit, are still fanning the same flame that was lit when we learned our first Rashi.

No one can ever measure the spiritual progress we’ve made, or the spiritual growth we still yearn for. It can’t be evaluated in dollars, in journal articles or in any measure you can think of, due to the sometimes overlooked, obvious fact, that spirituality can’t be measured, by definition. We should state our protests to those who might wittingly or unwittingly slow down the teaching of Torah to our fellow Jews, but our main focus is to continue our growth, and encourage and assist everyone in our circles of concern and influence to continue their spiritual growth.

It’s not about self-congratulations, or recognition, it’s about clarity of vision and clarity of mission. It’s about growth and concern for the spiritual growth of every Jew on the planet. And knowing that the evaluation of our individual and collective spiritual success is only in the hands of Hashem.

The Swinging Pendulum of Yiddishkeit

By “Always a BT”

I have noticed a phenomenon of late that makes me ponder the proverbial swinging pendulum of Torah observance. It hit me recently, having attended a number of simchas & observing the dress & mode of conduct of my own generation in stark contrast to that of our children.

My husband & I became frum as college students in the 70’s. After we got married, we settled in another city where we amassed a group of friends that can only be described as eclectic. Our FFB & BT friends alike grew in Torah as we built careers and raised our children. Our street had many frum families with similar age children, a rarity in our “out of town” community at the time. The kids all played together (boys AND girls!) and we (mothers especially) became as close as family. There was a climate of mutual understanding and respect that still exists 25 years later.

Our “Yeshivish” friends moved a little to the right of their childhood upbringing, with more time for learning, chumrahs, etc. Our “MO” friends also moved a little to the right, the women giving up pants and/or covering hair and the men more dedicated to learning, davening with a minyan, etc. (full disclosure: I hate labels but can’t figure out how to get my point across without them).

The level of Torah learning has increased substantially for both groups in depth, breadth & commitment. But, I have observed that the children of my FFB friends have either moved further to the right (i.e., kollel lifestyle, more chumrahs, less secular media etc.) or dropped Yiddishkeit altogether (although generally without any hostility). The children of my MO friends (both boys & girls), have become, for the most part, much more learned textually than their parents but slightly less (for lack of a better word) careful in their observance of mitzvos. The clothes are a little tighter, the skirts & sleeves a little shorter, the hair a little less covered, the boys a little more lax about minyan attendance, shomer negia, etc. Is this just a reflection of the hefker world we live in?

Additionally, my BY educated daughters have many classmates who go all the way through the system & can barely maintain a kosher kitchen and, despite many years of learning Halachas of Shabbos, etc., really don’t have a working knowledge of the hows & whys. My gut feeling is that this is a result of emphasizing academics over hashkafa and chesed done outside the house as opposed to chesed within the home, where children can learn by implementing what is taught at school. My girls learned these things, not as subjects taught in school, but while helping at home and during discussions at the dinner table.

In general there is more knowledge, but less observance. It’s baffling to me that with all this (re)dedication to learning Torah something is getting lost in the translation from text to practice. Isn’t the purpose of Torah learning to become closer to HKBH by achieving a greater love, understanding & observance of mitzvos? Or, is this trend just the natural phenomenon of the pendulum swinging the other way?

Has anyone else noticed this?

Do We Show Enough Appreciation for Kiruv?

Yes it’s easy to find faults with any Klal institution and Kiruv is no different. But if we stop and think about how much Baalei Teshuva owe to those dedicated to helping people find a path to Hashem and Torah and mitzvos we probably would be much slower to criticize. If we truly realized how much the Klal has benefited from the enthusiasm, growth orientation and contributions of Baalei Teshuva we would probably be much more supportive of the efforts of those in the field.

Do you think people express the proper HaKoras HaTov to those working in Kiruv?

If you think people are not supportive enough, why do you think that’s true?

Is the problem the general negative perspective often held by the Klal or is it something specific for Kiruv?

We can we do as a group to be more supportive if you think that’s the correct perspective?

A Webinar Series on a BT’s Guide to Fitting In – Kicks off with Rabbi Horowitz this Thursday 1/10

How do I find a Rav? How do I relate to a Rav? What’s so important about finding the right community to settle into? After being frum twenty five years I still have no idea about how to marry off my FFB children. Should my kids be doing Skype with their secular grandparents, aunts, and uncles? What about attending my secular nephew’s Bar Mitzvah? These are questions asked by almost all baalei teshuvah. The answers to these questions, and others, will be answered as part of the Yad L’Shuv Foundation’s webinar series.

The webinar series being called A BT’s Guide to Fitting In sponsored by the Yad L’Shuv Foundation, will be answering questions and concerns baalei teshuvah frequently have but are either afraid to ask and find answers for. The comprehensive nature of A BT’s Guide to Fitting In will create a sort of compendium containing the essential information necessary for baalei teshuvah to integrate comfortably and seamlessly into the frum world. In the words of Binyamin Klempner, the Yad L’Shuv Foundation’s director and the webinar’s organizer, “The idea for A BT’s Guide to Fitting In has come out of the questions and concerns I’m presented with on an almost daily basis. My thought was to put together a forum in which baalei teshuvah can have these questions answered by leaders of the kiruv and BT world.”

The lineup of speakers includes Rabbi Yaakov Horowitz of Project YES, Rabbi Ephraim Shapiro of North Miami Beach, Rabbi Illan Feldman of Atlanta, Rabbi Eytan Kobre of Mishpacha Magazine, and others.

The first webinar in the series is scheduled to be given by Rabbi Horowitz Thursday January 10 at 8:30 PM EST.

The webinar can be viewed through the organization’s website www.yadlshuv.org

Rejoice O Youth, In Your Fiftieth Anniversary

The year was 1962. It was only seventeen years after the end of World War II. Many Holocaust survivors were rebuilding their lives in America. Those teenagers and young adults who had outwitted the Nazis, many of whom had watched in silent horror as their parents and younger siblings were murdered, had come to these shores and were now raising their own families. The oldest of their own children, kids without grandparents, was reaching sixteen. Jews from the first generation had questions, lots of questions; but those with the tattooed numbers on their arms had no answers for them.

Rabbi Avigdor Miller, then a mashgiach (spiritual counselor) at the Mesivta of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, heard these questions from the young men of his yeshiva, many of whom were the children of concentration camp survivors. He saw unaffiliated and traditional Jews shaken in their deepest beliefs following this tragedy. Utilizing his masterful command of the English language, along with his encyclopedic memory of both secular and religious sources, Rabbi Miller wrote “Rejoice O Youth,” which he subtitled “A Jewish Seeker’s Ideology,” meant to answer the tough questions of faith, those asked out loud and those no one dared to ask.

The book is written as a dialogue between a Youth and a Sage, taking place over several days. Youth and Sage alternate, in numbered paragraphs, which are cross-referenced in other paragraphs. Rabbi Avigdor Miller, speaking through the voice of the Sage, gives the Youth lessons in history, comparative religion and science, showing the superiority of Torah. He dares to draw the line directly connecting Darwinism, evolution and the doctrine of “survival of the fittest” to its monstrous but inevitable culmination in the perverted theories of Nazism and the destruction of “inferior subhumans” in the gas chambers.

Five years before Shor Yoshuv, nine years before Hineni and fourteen years before Artscroll Publications, one lone rabbi had the courage to buck the assimilated Jewish establishment and the “Misyavnim” of his day, writing the truth in his books that were self-published and sold only in small Judaica shops. No one can fully gauge the impact that “Rejoice O Youth” and his later books had on the Jewish world. No studies were done as to how many Baalei-Teshuvah were created, or how many people were “brought back” by his writings.

“Encounters With Greatness,” a collection of narratives assembled by his followers after the April 2001 passing of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, relates in one story how someone saw a young woman in a seforim shop purchasing two copies of “Rejoice O Youth.” When asked why two copies of the same book, the young woman replied,”I read this book and was inspired to give up my non-Jewish boyfriend. I’m buying these two copies for two Jewish friends so that they will also give up their non-Jewish boyfriends.”

“Rejoice O Youth” remains a classic, still available at seforim stores fifty years after its publication, and eleven years after the passing of its author. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, zatzal, have established a foundation to make his lectures and writings available to a new generation. More than one thousand of his famous “Thursday Night Lectures,” previously captured on the medium of cassette audiotape, have been transferred to digital format “in the cloud” and stored on portable MP3 format players. Subscribers can sign up for free to get daily emails with short concepts and ideas from his writings. His ideas, born out of the great moral dilemmas of the twentieth century, are fresh and relevant in the twenty-first.

While the outside world is lehavdil marking the fiftieth anniversary of the Rolling Stones, we can mark the fiftieth anniversary of “Rejoice O Youth,” which was the first effort to answer the questions of sincere Jewish seekers, and the beginning of the Kiruv movement that would arise later in the sixties and the seventies.

On Davening as a BT

Davening is the place where the BT can feel vindicated. Park for a moment the speed factor: that is keeping up or better yet catching up with the Minyan. In the private sense, I think most BT’s tend to take the Avodah- the job of it seriously and are shocked and outraged when in the place of prayer they occasionally find others involved in all kinds of distracting behavior including talking.

We BT’s are usually idealistic. We come to the table primarily interested in connecting with HASHEM. The Siddur is not seen as a school-book and Prayer was never experienced as an activity that was ever thrust upon us as a requirement. It is in fact one of the most safe and rewarding places for a BT. Why might that be generally so?
Read more On Davening as a BT